The comparisons to 1994's Eastern Conference Finals were beginning to wear a little thin heading into Friday's Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. Yes, the Devils were leading 3-2 in the series with Game 6 at home, exactly 18 years after Mark Messier's "guarantee" that they would win Game 6 and send the series back to the Garden. Yes, Martin Brodeur was in goal both nights, but the similarities ended there. (In fact, Brodeur is the only player from that series still in the NHL).
Unlike 1994, there will be no trip back to the Garden, no soul-crushing overtime loss in Game 7 as the Devils exorcised their playoff demons, if you will, with a 3-2 victory Friday night, sealed by rookie Adam Henrique's overtime goal shortly after the puck dropped in the extra frame. The Devils advance to face Los Angeles in what should be an uptempo, physical series featuring several dynamic offensive players. It's certainly an improbable Cup final and the Devils' presence in it is probably the most surprising aspect.
The issues hanging over New Jersey heading into the beginning of the season proffered more questions than answers; would Martin Brodeur's increasing age be an issue? How would the Devils manage with a defensive corps that clearly didn't have a stand-out performer? How would new coach Peter DeBoer fit in with Lou Lamoriello's team philosophy? Would Zach Parise be back next season? How would Ilya Kovalchuk adapt his style of play to what New Jersey wanted to do?
The Devils were discounted by many, and on paper, it was not surprising why. Fast forwarding to the second round of the postseason, the Devils were not given much of a chance against division rivals Philadelphia due to the Flyers' manhandling of prohibitive Cup favorite Pittsburgh in the first round. The Devils beat Philadelphia rather convincingly, outplaying and outcoaching the Flyers before moving on to the Rangers.
The adjustments the Devils made in the Eastern Conference Finals after being shut out during Game 1 of the series gave them a blueprint to beat the Rangers. They figured out how to get shots through the Rangers' defense, how to disrupt their attack and how to use their forecheck to set up scoring chances. The Devils simply continued to surprise throughout the series, jumping out to leads in Games 5 and 6 before squandering them only to win both contests in dramatic fashion. They received a huge boost in production from veteran stay-at-home defender Bryce Salvador, timely goals from the team's fourth line of Steve Bernier, Stephen Gionta and Ryan Carter (none of whom were on the Devils' roster when the season began) and saves from Martin Brodeur that kept the team in the game.
This Devils' team is more similar to the 2000 and 2001 editions of the Devils, who had more of an attacking flair to their game than that of the 2003 and 1995 winning-sides. (Yes, they didn't win the cup in 2001, but they were one of the highest scoring teams in the league and it was not a surprise when they got back to the finals). The Devils advanced through the playoffs relying on their team's attack, forecheck and 5-on-5 dominance, carrying Martin Brodeur for once rather than Brodeur carrying the Devils. The reinvention of Ilya Kovalchuk as a two-way player has been a major factor in the team's success and Travis Zajac's return to the lineup late in the season from a torn Achilles' tendon showed the squad what they were missing without their steady center.
The series against the Rangers was a hard-fought victory and the fact that the Devils reached the Stanley Cup finals while going through Philadelphia and the Rangers, as underdogs in both series, is satisfying, at least for their fans. This team simply was not supposed to still be playing hockey in late May and early June.